Today’s guest author is a fellow historical fiction author who has been writing all her life in one form or another. Please help me welcome Eileen Joyce Donovan to the interview hot seat! Here’s a quick peek at her bio and then we’ll learn more about her and her writing.
Although born in New York City, where she spent most of her life, Donovan has lived in six states and visited most of the others. She earned her MA in English at Northern Arizona University. In one way or another, she’s been writing her entire life, whether it was imaginative stories for friends, or advertising copy for industrial clients.
But she never felt her stories were “good enough” to be published. At the persistent urging of her late husband, she finally agreed to seriously edit and revise one of them and take the plunge. Although accepted for publication, the book never made it all the way to print. However, this gave her the courage to pursue her dream of becoming a published author.
Years later, her persistence paid off and her debut historical fiction, Promises, was released in 2019 from Waldorf Publishing and won the 2019 Marie M Irvine Award for Literary Excellence. She is also a contributing essayist to various themed anthologies.
She lives in Manhattan, New York and is a member of Authors Guild, SCBWI, Women’s National Book Association, and The Historical Novel Society.
Betty: When did you become a writer?
Eileen: I’ve always enjoyed telling stories. I guess that’s part of my Irish storyteller heritage. In the past, I enjoyed making up stories I told to little children I babysat about stray stuffed animals or dolls, or the adventures of runaway fire engines and trains. Of course, as I got older, I started writing some of the stories down, but never considered them good enough to be considered for publication. After college, I worked for an advertising agency and started writing many of my clients’ ad copy. Since my clients were business-to-business ones, the copy was technical and very different from my adolescent fantasies. But it showed me that I could write something that was publishable, which eventually led me to revert to making up stories again and pursuing publication for them.
Betty: How long did you work on your writing skills before you became published?
Eileen: As an English major in both undergraduate and graduate school, I guess I’ve always worked on my writing skills. And, of course, when you’re teaching writing at the college level, you’d better be sure your skills are first-class. But as far as writing fiction for publication, I guess I really hunkered down on those skills when I began to seriously consider writing for publication. I started attending writing conferences, read tons of writing craft books and blogs, and joined local critique groups so I could have objective eyes evaluate my work. I’d guess, although strict attention to dates and lengths of time are not my forte, I did that for about four years before my debut novel. But I still do all those things. I don’t think you can ever stop learning about your craft and improving your skills.
Betty: What authors or stories do you feel influenced your writing style?
Eileen: That’s a tough one. I really don’t know who I would put in that category. I guess I’d have to credit Sara Donati and Kate Morton as two strong influencers. It was reading their books that made me realize I wanted to write historical fiction. Before that, I was floundering through different genres, none of which felt right. But now I feel that I’ve found my niche and intend to stay there.
Betty: What prompted you to start writing?
Eileen: Amazingly enough, something that has absolutely nothing to do with historical fiction. It started when I was reading a book of Victorian fairy tales, Beyond the Looking Glass. I’ve always been a lover of fairy tales and had an extensive collection of them. However, this book had tales I had never read or even heard about. I couldn’t believe they had just disappeared when they were so wonderful. So, I decided to rewrite them for a 21st-century audience. Three of the books were accepted for publication; however, due to “circumstances beyond my control” they never made it to print. But that encouraged me enough to continue writing.
Betty: What type of writing did you start with?
Eileen: Children’s stories, fairy tales mainly. I guess I thought they would be easier to write than adult fiction. Boy, was I wrong. But the research I did for those stories led me to my true love of historical fiction.
Betty: What do you most enjoy writing? Why?
Eileen: I enjoy bringing characters to life and trying to see what their lives will be like and how they will cope with the conflicts they encounter. Since I’m a “pantser” I’m never completely sure what my characters are going to do, so I’m solving their problems right along with them. And sometimes, they seem to run away from me, and where I thought they were going turns out to be somewhere else entirely.
Betty: How did you learn to write? A mentor, classes, conferences, craft books, or something else?
Eileen: All of the above. And my critique groups. I can’t say enough about how helpful they have been in honing my skills and supporting me in my efforts.
Betty: What do you wish you knew before you started writing/publishing?
Eileen: I wish I fully understood how difficult it can be to get published and how much time it takes to go from contract to actual printed book-in-hand. I expected it to be a difficult process, but not as lengthy as it is. I guess I also wish I had realized how many rejections I would have to endure before someone said, “This is the one.” But, all that said, I wouldn’t stop writing for the world. In fact, I’m still going through the same agent querying process (and rejection emails) for my present manuscript. I sold Promises directly to a traditional publisher without an agent. I’m not sure I would do it that way again, but with all the acquisitions and mergers, I may.
Betty: What other authors inspired you (either directly or through their writing) to try your hand at writing?
Eileen: Oh, there are so many. I’ve been in love with books since I was three years old and I think everything I’ve read has inspired me to create my own stories. I just needed someone to push me into believing in myself enough to sit down and write them. My late husband did just that, and I thank him for his faith in me every day.
Betty: What inspired you to write the book you’re sharing with us today?
Eileen: I watched a documentary on PBS, “Lost Children of the Empire” about British children who were exported from Great Britain to the British colonies in Canada, Australia, South Africa. In the beginning, this was done by private, mostly religious, groups and most of the children were orphans and homeless. living on the streets. However, that morphed into taking children away from prostitute mothers, destitute families, criminal parents, etc. Although the people in charge of these programs felt they were doing a service to the children by sending them to a better place and a better life, this was often not the case. The children were frequently abused and some died while in the care of their new “parents.” This emigration program spanned the years from the late 1800’s to 1968. After seeing this program, it stayed on my mind for about three years. No one I talked to had ever heard about it so I decided I should write about it and bring it to light, focusing on when the government took over during World War II and formed the Children’s Overseas Reception Board. The focus was to keep the children safe, but the abuses were the same. Of course, Lizzie and Colin are from my imagination, but their ordeal is based on facts gleaned from extensive research into this program.
In Promises, 13-year-old Lizzie and her 9-year-old brother Colin are on their way from England to Canada in 1940. Nightly German bombings convinced their mum to enroll them in a government evacuation program. They’re told this short holiday will be filled with trips to the Rocky Mountains, the chance to meet cowboys and Indians, and promises are made to return them to England when the war is over.
When one of Colin’s friends is swept overboard, Lizzy’s doubts about this adventure begin. Arriving in Nova Scotia, they are placed with Mr. and Mrs. Harris, who work them like slaves – Colin as a hand on his lobster boat, and Lizzie as a servant victimized by Mrs. Harris’s abuses. Can she rescue Colin and herself from the Harrises? Will she keep her promise to her mum to protect him?
“Farming or fishing?” The matron’s hand waited to grab the right stamp. “Come on, come on! We don’t have all day for you to decide.” Her bulldog face glared out at Colin and me from behind the heavy metal desk.
She terrifies me so much I can’t even answer her. This is not anything like the grand adventure I thought it would be.
“Well?” she barked.
“I like fishing, Lizzie,” Colin’s tiny voice whispered. He squeezed my hand so tightly it hurt. I looked down into my little brother’s eyes and saw fear and confusion. I wanted to grab him and run back home to Mum.
“Fishing it is,” the matron said, and stamped our papers with a force that shook the desk and made us jump. “Next!”
Another matron attached a baggage tag to our collars: “Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB)” with our names, a number (mine was #158, Colin’s was #159), and our destination – Halifax, Nova Scotia. A different matron herded us to long wooden benches in the corner of the cavernous room. The ceiling must have been three stories high and the walls were dirty gray concrete. One wall was missing. The open space led directly to the docks and the sea. Workers and seamen roared out orders to get the ships loaded while the squawking gulls circled above looking for scraps of food.
“Girls to the left, boys to the right.”
“No!” Colin screeched. “Don’t leave me, Lizzie. I’m scared.”
Buy links: Amazon
What a powerful story to tell, Eileen. Thanks for bringing that story to life and to light. And congratulations on the award, too!
Thanks as always for reading!
Best-selling Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
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